Thursday, February 06, 2020

Notes on Samuel Palmer

Samuel Palmer's (1805-1881) early works suggest a prodigious and precocious talent – he exhibited at the Royal Academy, aged fourteen – but little more. It wasn't until meeting William Blake in 1824, when Palmer was an impressionable teenager, that his work takes on the 'visionary' aspect that he is famous for (Tom Luddock in his book English Graphic gives a witty exploration of that difficult, vague and often unhelpful term 'visionary').

by his early twenties Palmer had moved to Shoreham, ostensibly for his poor health, and there produced the most imaginative art of his career, his so-called visionary pictures, inspired by Blake, the Bible and the countryside around him. He lived in a run-down house nicknamed Rat Abbey and hung out with a bunch of like-minded artists called The Ancients, a brotherhood all believing in an idealised rural past and worshipping their seer, William Blake.

Look at the riot of springtime, above, painted in 1829 in Shoreham, Kent. Visionary or kitsch (for visionary I might say hallucinatory)? A gloopy, bubbling candy floss tree found in Willie Wonker's Chocolate factory, maybe. Palmer's intense, impressionistic landscapes have often been compared to Van Gogh's (1853-1890).

I've never been that moved by the epic quality of Turner's landscapes or the chocolate box countrysides of Constable. But Palmer's landscapes draw the viewer in, partly due to their small, intimate size. Palmer's pastoral paintings and in particular his pen and ink drawings of either moonlit, early evening or morning scenes (above, 1825) hum with a magic realism imbued with a mystical feeling. All the elements of nature feel interconnected and alive. Contrasts are deep and shadows are long.

When Palmer returned to live in London in 1835, after a decade in Shoreham, his paintings lost a lot of their unique 'visionary' quality and became rather conventional. Only a few late works, such as 1879's etching titled The Lonely Tower, managed to recapture that paradisal mysticism of the Shoreham years.

Previously on Barnflakes
William Blake's vision of angels in Peckham 
Notes on Kent
Edward Burra, 20th century man
Christopher Wood, English painter

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